Lives Well Lived

4. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy wrote two of the best novels of all time. War and Peace was published in 1869. The novel details the events leading up to the French invasion of Russia, as seen through the eyes of five aristocratic families. There are five hundred and eighty characters in this novel, some historical, the rest fictional. The novel is separated into four volumes, and the reader has the singular experience of flying through the romantic and domestic dramas of the “Peace” sections, and then thudding into the graphically detailed battle strategies of “War”. Tolstoy had been a soldier himself, and he conducted extensive research on military history. As a result, the “War” sections read almost like non-fiction, and thereby achieve a level of literary realism that was unprecedented for its time. Isaac Babel said, “If the world could write by itself, it would write just like Tolstoy.” The author himself claimed that War and Peace was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” As far as he was concerned, Anna Karenina, published in 1878, was his first true novel. It is impossible to reduce this epic masterwork to a few sentences, but Anna Karenina contains romance, tragedy, betrayal, an exploration of the merits of life in the city over life in the country and one of the most memorable heroines in all of literature. William Faulkner claimed the novel was, quite simply, “the best ever written.”

However, Leo Tolstoy was no mere novelist. Yes, indeed, he also wrote short stories and plays, but Tolstoy was a deep moral thinker and a social reformer, a Christian anarchist, an ardent pacifist, a Count of Russian nobility and a principled ascetic, a philanthropist, a provocative essayist, and a vegetarian. His spiritual and moral awakening was inspired by his experiences in the army, as well as a trip to France in 1857 during which he witnessed a public execution. This had a huge effect on him, and cemented his distaste for both violence and governments. He wrote in a letter to a friend later that year: “The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens… Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.”

Tolstoy had been raised as an Orthodox Russian Catholic, but he now saw religion as inextricably bound to the state. He chose instead to follow what he considered the direct teachings of Jesus as contained in the Gospels, specifically the Sermon on the Mount. In The Kingdom of God is Within You, published in 1894, Tolstoy outlined a new organization for society based on a literal Christian interpretation of the gospels. This book advocated living according to Jesus’s actual words, by turning away from violence and towards love. He argued that when Christ said to turn the other cheek, he actually meant it: “How can you kill people, when it is written in God’s commandment: ‘Thou shalt not murder’?” Tolstoy believed that all governments that wage war are an affront to Christian principles. He said that every institution or man that argued against non-violence did so only because he stood to gain from bloodshed: “That this social order with its pauperism, famines, prisons, gallows, armies, and wars is necessary to society; that still greater disaster would ensue if this organization were destroyed; all this is said only by those who profit by this organization, while those who suffer from it—and they are ten times as numerous—think and say quite the contrary.”

This brazen, radical treatise has influenced nearly every peaceful activist from Tolstoy’s time until now. Gandhi listed The Kingdom of God is Within You as one of the three most important influences on his life. He read it as a young lawyer living in South Africa, and the book strengthened Gandhi’s burgeoning dedication to non-violence. In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to a Hindu, detailing how only by using non-violent resistance could the Indians overthrow the powerful British Empire; unfortunately, Tolstoy would not live to see Gandhi put these very ideas into action. Gandhi sent the older author a letter of admiration, and the two men maintained a correspondence until Tolstoy’s death.

Leo Tolstoy had the bravery to think freely and to change his life according to his ideas, even when he suffered for it personally. Tolstoy and his wife, Sonya Adreevna Bers, were married in 1862 and together had 13 children. They enjoyed a passionate, honest relationship—before their marriage, Tolstoy insisted she read his personal journals that detailed his prior sexual affairs so that when she married him, she would know him completely. Sonya was the only one he trusted to transcribe his fiction—she hand-copied War and Peace seven times before Tolstoy was happy with it. Sonya was his secretary, proofreader and financial manager. When Tolstoy began to turn away from fiction towards the matter of how to best live life, a rift opened between them. The more radical Tolstoy’s ideas became, the more rejected Sonya felt. She wanted him to be the man she had married: a wealthy society writer. Tolstoy, as much as he might have wanted to please her, could not remain unchanged. He said, “Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life is impossible.”

Tolstoy never rested on his laurels. For decades, he devoted himself to creating masterworks of fiction, spending hundreds of hours reading, thinking, researching and writing in order to produce art of the highest level. When Anna Karenina was published, Tolstoy was fifty and famous around the world. Many men would have retired at this stage, or at least settled comfortably into their position of wealth and prestige. Tolstoy did neither. He chose, instead, to question everything his life was built on. He wrote over a dozen philosophical works after the publication of Anna Karenina. He confronted uncomfortable truths, started a school for serfs, and publicly advocated positions that were unpopular both inside and outside his home. In 1885, his free thinking led him to vegetarianism: “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite.” He was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and his book The Kingdom of God is Within You was banned throughout Russia. Still, Tolstoy was intent on learning and growing as a human being. “Everyone thinks of changing the world,” he said, “but no one thinks of changing himself.” Tolstoy was engaged, throughout his life, with the hard work of changing himself.

He struggled with giving up his wealth for many years. He felt it was the right thing to do; his wife disagreed. He came to believe that he was undeserving of his inheritance, and he was renowned among the local peasantry for his generosity. Much to Sonya’s chagrin, he would frequently return to his country estate with vagrants whom he felt needed a helping hand, and dispense large sums of money to street beggars while on trips to the city. In his later years, he signed away the royalties from his fiction, to benefit to the public of Russia, and this drove a final wedge between him and his wife. His death came only days after finally gathering the nerve to abandon his family and wealth and take up the path of a wandering ascetic. Tolstoy died in a train station, after falling too ill to travel any further. His very death embodied the search he had conducted his entire life: to be a better human being, to live a better life. In his words, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.”

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